Brooklyn Philharmonic, Innovative But Sounding a Troubled Tune

Friday, October 18, 2013 - 02:00 AM

The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs at the World Financial Center. The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs at the World Financial Center. (Alvina Lai / Brooklyn Philharmonic)

POLL: Can Brooklyn Be a Home to Classical Music?

New York City Opera made international headlines recently after it filed for bankruptcy. But another veteran New York arts organization has faced similar troubles with much less fanfare. Even some of its longtime partners have been surprised.

Meredith Walters, the director of programs and exhibitions at the Brooklyn Public Library, discovered that the Brooklyn Philharmonic wouldn’t be renewing its annual series of a dozen free library concerts this year. "Usually the summertime is when I hear from them about planning for the next season and so I wrote to my colleague over there about scheduling a time," she said. "I never heard back from her. I got a phone call from someone who was speaking on behalf of the Brooklyn Philharmonic who said they wouldn’t be working with us.”

Since August, visitors to the Philharmonic’s website have been greeted with a “closed for maintenance” message. Music director Alan Pierson’s contract expired in June and hasn’t been renewed. The administrative staff has left. An orchestra source, who declined to speak on record, says the group is experiencing severe financial difficulties due to a drop in fundraising.

"Philanthropy is the biggest challenge facing the reorganization of the Brooklyn Philharmonic today, in 2013,” said Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where, a decade ago, the Philharmonic had a full subscription season. The orchestra left in 2005, and by 2011, it had become a touring outfit, playing in neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Brighton Beach. But funding dried up.

"Today you have a symphonic orchestra that at one time was doing symphonic orchestra concerts," Melillo added. "That’s no longer how they define themselves."

Several Philharmonic musicians blame the orchestra’s current troubles on the radical shift away from its traditional symphonic formats. Longtime oboe player Randal Wolfgang was critical of conductor Alan Pierson's programs, which involved a healthy dose of contemporary fare, as well as DJs and rappers like Mos Def.

"I didn’t like his idea that we’d go in the direction of playing with rappers and trying to get something popular going," said Wolfgang. "My feeling was the orchestra should go in the direction of the Tchaikovsky Fifth or Schubert Unfinished or Dvorak New World symphonies."

Pierson (above, right) declined to comment for this story. Other musicians spoke nostalgically of the 1980s and '90s, when esteemed conductors like Lukas Foss and Robert Spano led the ensemble in programs that mixed traditional and new works. During this heyday, the Philharmonic made several acclaimed recordings, gave numerous premieres, and twice appeared on the David Letterman Show.

By 2009, the orchestra had cancelled its season for lack of money. There was also management turmoil: the orchestra’s executive director, a self-styled entrepreneur named Richard Dare, came aboard with bold ideas about symphonic formats and community outreach. Then, last December, he abruptly quit in order to run the New Jersey Symphony. He lasted nine days in New Jersey before a New York Times investigation revealed he’d misrepresented his past. He was forced to step down.

There was also an ambitious plan for a new headquarters and rehearsal space at a former firehouse in Cobble Hill (right). The city extended a lease to the Philharmonic in 2008 but renovations never got started and the building remains boarded up. A spokesman for Community Board 6, which represents the neighborhood, confirmed that the orchestra has leased the property but said he didn't understand the delay.

Amid these changes, the orchestra had some successes, including a pair of sold-out shows with R&B singer Eryka Badhu last June, and some great reviews. To some, the orchestra’s struggles reflect a broader concern: in a borough that has seen a wide artistic renaissance, classical music struggles to find a niche. 

“Listen, I think there was always a limitation on purely classical symphonic concert evening," said Mellilo of BAM. "I think that there’s always been a ceiling, a limited number of people at that time – you have to remember that."

Weigh in: How would you describe classical music in Brooklyn? Can the borough be a home for great symphonic performances? Take our poll and share your thoughts below.

Photo of Alan Pierson by Joshua Simpson


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [12]

Daniel from Kips Bay

The idea that the BPhil could have been saved if they did less modern material and more Dvorak, Beethoven, and Schubert is ridiculous. EVERYONE is doing Dvorak, Beethoven, Schubert. With the NYPhil, the Met Opera Orchestra, various touring orchestras, the Queens Symphony (mentioned earlier in these comments as also, somewhat unsurprisingly, under the bus), Bargemusic, and the BPhil, I would argue that there's an overcapacity for the traditional classical we've come to know well.

What I liked about BPhil is how ambitious it was over the past two years. The sort of nomadic, three-cycle schedule they had (going into Brighton Beach and Bed-Stuy along with Downtown Brooklyn/Park Slope) was audacious in and of itself, and really spoke to me as a person formerly bereft of options to see art and performance in SE Queens. The two shows of theirs I attended were both the hip-hop collaborations Wolfgang didn't like - the third performance with Mos Def (where, it should be noted, also 'remixed' Beethoven and had a tribute to Lena Horne) and the first of two (sold out) nights at BAM with Erykah Badu. I liked it precisely because it was willing to go beyond the traditional classical fare and either alter it or just get weird with the material they'd present.

It's a shame the Phil has such funding problems as of now. Hopefully like the City Opera they can at least go out with one last short season of performance, with a bang and not a whimper.

Oct. 23 2013 09:29 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Something of an upbeat symphonic interlude -

Oct. 22 2013 11:51 AM
Sanda from AZ

That is what happens when organizations try to implement the non-sense of all kind of consultants and those who advocate "outreach into the community" and "community engagement" instead of concentrating of making great music and educating the younger generations to appreciate great art. It is not gimmicks that have carried on the traditions for hundreds of years, but rather outstanding quality art.
All this makes me sick.

Oct. 22 2013 11:41 AM

The Brooklyn Phil under Robert Spano was the best orchestral venue in town, and nothing has filled this niche since.

Oct. 19 2013 11:56 AM
NYer from NYC

The Brooklyn Philharmonic was never considered "the" New York orchestra
No musician would considered being employed by the New York Philharmonic full-time to be being "tied" into a long season!

Oct. 19 2013 10:03 AM
NYer from NYC

I would rather go deaf than attend a concert with Mos Def!
Kill me now!

Oct. 19 2013 09:58 AM
John Porter from NY

The real truth is that the Brooklyn Phil, like the Queens Symphony, has been declining for many, many years. Let's say somewhere around 20, at least. A steady decline.

While the conventional wisdom is that Richard Dare's hiring it to blame, that's ridiculous. It was already declining from at least the time that Joe Horowitz was running it. At that point it was already a fraction of what it once was under Lukas Foss. Catherine Cahill, by sheer force of will and great administrative chops kept the orchestra alive, but was not able to make much headway in building it. She was replaced by a fundraiser with an excellent reputation who quit shortly after she was hired, presumably because the writing had been on the wall a long time ago.

If you look back to the time of Foss at Brooklyn, you will also see a Queens Symphony that had a big season. There was once the New York Chamber Orchestra led by Gerard Schwarz. There used to be a whole season of the Goldman Band. Even further back each major television network had its own full orchestra and the broadway pits had twice the size of players they do today, not to mention there were probably double the number of big musicals.

And, you have the musician who would like to blame this all on there not being enough Tchaikovsky 5th. Yes, the decline of the Brooklyn Phil over all these years is because of a lack of traditional repertoire. That point of view should tell you something about what's wrong with the field of classical music.

Frankly, I think that what Pierson was doing at Brooklyn was one of the best experiments the field could have. It's a shame that he didn't have a first class administrator to partner with. Pierson looked like he was going to try really reinvent the orchestra, which is what it needed, rather than an attempt to return to the model of big orchestras playing Tchaik 5, the very model that failed to begin with.

Oct. 19 2013 09:02 AM
Frank from UWS

Amy: see the paragraph beginning "By 2009." There's your Richard Dare. I think he gets his share of the blame here.

Oct. 19 2013 07:58 AM
Amy Dell from NJ

I am very disappointed that WQXR would publish such an INCOMPLETE story. No mention is made of the disastrous hiring of an unqualified executive director (Richard Dare) who left the orchestra badly in debt. (His subsequent tenure at the NJ Symphony lasted all of 11 days when he was forced to resign.) Alan Pierson's leadership as music director brought excitement and vitality to the Bklyn Phil, but the business end of the orchestra failed him and the musicians.

Oct. 18 2013 08:07 PM
Brooklyn Artist from New York

Melilo is known for thinking orchestras are outdated. A different person to quote would have served this article well. Still, sad news for the orchestra, and most of all Brooklyn.

Oct. 18 2013 09:44 AM
ann summers dossena from Toronto

What a sad ending for such a vibrant orchestra. The Brooklyn Phil was at one time considered the major New York orchestra made up of outstanding instrumentalists who preferred short orchestral seasons rather than be tied into a full year with the NYPhil. I worked for Lukas Foss during his time as Music Director for which I feel very lucky. Ann

Oct. 18 2013 09:29 AM
concetta nardone

This news to me is very saddening. Attended concerts and enjoyed them. Also attended New York City Opera. This too has left me. There was an orchestra called the Cosmopolitan. Attended those as well. got to see Nadia Salerno Sonnenberg play when she was just a teen-ager. Do not think they are around either.

Oct. 18 2013 08:53 AM

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